Monday, March 10, 2014

Consumer products and overwhelming choice

How much is too much?

By Joni Newkirk - CEO, Integrated Insight

I see it frequently:  The blank stare at a shelf in the grocery store or the menu board at a fast food restaurant.  I know it well as I often find myself in the same situation, looking for a certain item and finding everything but.  It doesn’t seem to stem from too many brands, but rather, the ever increasing number of choices for almost identical products within a brand.   Sometimes, it seems the simpler the product, the more complicated the choice, like ordering a Starbucks coffee.

Take for example, Triscuits.  I love the original Triscuit, but more than once I’ve walked out of the store empty handed.  The original was either sold out or shoved so far away that it became difficult and time consuming to find.  Today, you can buy Triscuits in at least 15 flavors, not including Thin Crisps.  This photo, posted by Ted Parsnips at, sums up the resulting display that consumers are faced with every day.
Drive-thru menus arguably provide an elevated level of frustration for the consumer.   Even younger generations who have been raised in the world of overwhelming choice can find it less than inviting as evident from this post by my 22 year old son:

“Taco Bell’s drive thru menu is really big and intimidating and I just can’t handle it sometimes.  You’ve got someone behind you in line, the lady in the box waiting on my order, and I’m trying to sort through what seems like thousands of grandes, chalupas, locos, cantinas and whatever the hell a gordita is to find what I want.  It’s like the first world problem of our generation.”

Which led me to wonder how often companies study “non-purchasers” versus mining the transactional data among those who did purchase.  Do they really know why consumers behave as they do?  Does my neighborhood grocery store know how often I didn’t buy a product because I lacked the patience to spend more time searching?  Does a fast food restaurant realize how many customers balked because the line was moving too slow as others studied a menu of overwhelming choice?   Does an online merchant know how often their carts are abandoned because consumers run out of time studying the long lists of almost identical items?  A recent article in QSR confirms drive-thru transactions are indeed becoming longer, but is the increased choice really paying off?  According to a now infamous study on the purchase of jam, when faced with significantly more choice, consumers were far less likely to make a purchase.
“Congratulations! You’ve created a taco grand burrito.”  

Working toward more streamlined and simplified selling may help manage the choice. For those that know what they want – “I’ll have the Beefy Crunch Burrito with Flamin' Hot Fritos, please” - have at it. Perhaps mobile apps to pre-order will alleviate some of the pain, but others may be better served by throwing them a “build your own” lifeline, much like the Cantina Bell menu attempts to do for a limited portion of the overall Taco Bell offering. 

We all want it our way, so the trend toward more choice is likely to continue. Just don’t make us think too hard. 

2 comments 1 2 :

  1. Interesting point about studying non-purchasers!
    I often think about this issue in the context of electronics.

    Lack of choice means devices that don't fit everyone's needs and slower innovation. Too much choice means compatibility fragmentation and lack of focus to create one or two great products.

    It's best summed up by Apple (limited but focused) and Samsung (offer everything consumers say they want). Maybe companies like Samsung (or Taco Bell) will continue throw everything at the wall until something sticks so that the Apples of the world can take the successful ideas and run with them.

  2. Not only are we overwhelmed by choices, but by sources. Do you go to a store and buy direct or online shop , there's a whole other world. And if you go the online route, you worry about fraud, will you get your product or will they just take your credit card info and run with it. That's actually happened to me. Sometimes when you finally make a decision and it's wrong, it's impossible to correct. So much of the time, I also do nothing and do without. It's less hassle.